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Descendents of Georgetown slaves sold to finance university have roots in New Orleans

19th September 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Della Hasselle
Contributing Writer

In 1838, the Jesuit priests of Georgetown University sold 272 men, children and women to plantations in Baton Rouge, to pay off debts for an institution that was then called Georgetown College.

The university has recently announced plans to reconcile its past, in part by giving admissions preference to the descendants of those 272 people sold off to plantations in the south 178 years ago this year.

Some of those descendants, however, say the university’s recent effort should only be the start of the reconciliation process, and are calling for university officials to more closely collaborate with those who can now trace their family members back to that sale of slaves, thanks to DNA testing.

They are also calling for a $1 billion charitable foundation that ensures those descendants are able to attend the school.

Among those calling for action is Karran Harper Royal, an education advocate in New Orleans, who as of this month is now also a lead organizer of a group called the GU272 Foundation.

Named with intent to commemorate the number of enslaved people sold by the Jesuits in 1838, the group has “developed a plan to begin a reconciliation framework that is comprehensive, inclusive, and intended to serve as an example for the nation,” Royal announced on Sept. 7.

“At its core, we really want to address the issue of race, reconciliation of legacy of slavery. And in multiple ways. And not just for our families,” Royal told The Louisiana Weekly. “This country is in a very tense position on the issue of race. We want to be a model for other entities. This is not something that’s easy.”

The discussion over how Georgetown University could atone for its past began in earnest in the fall of 2015, when school officials convened something called the “Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation.” The group was convened after protests on campus, according to reports, when students staged a sit-in in the president’s office demanding officials rename the buildings after individuals involved in the notorious slave sale in 1838.

Officials listened, and in addition to making recommendations to the university’s president about how to best acknowledge Georgetown’s historical relationship with slavery, the 15-member working group also aimed to convene opportunities for dialogue about slavery’s past, and how it could be reconciled in the future.

Among the first actions taken by the group was to remove from two buildings the names of the Jesuits who acted as architects behind that sale, Mulledy and McSherry, and replace them with the names Freedom and Remembrance.

After the working group submitted its final report in early September, the university also announced the creation of an institute for the study of slavery, called the Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies at Georgetown.

Additionally, the university’s president announced plans to erect a public memorial to the slaves whose work helped build Georgetown, and offer a formal apology to descendants of that slave sale.

“We need to address in our time the consequences of the original evil of slavery, which were never ameliorated in any previous time: they were not addressed by Eman-cipation, by Reconstruction; the legacy was furthered by Jim Crow and by systematic actions throughout the country to stymie African Americans from their rights as citizens and members of our society,” the university’s president, John J. DeGioia, said in a set of remarks to the Georgetown community on Sept. 1. “While important achievements can be recognized—the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, we still live with the implications of the original failure to address the evil that framed the founding of our nation.”

But Royal and others said those efforts could be more meaningful if they included participation from the organization she helped create, whose members are the descendants Georgetown mentions.

It’s a slave-trading past that she said continues to haunt descendants and their families to this day, including hers.

While researching history documented by the Maryland Province Society of Jesus, the Jesuits who sold her and her husband’s ancestors, Royal was thrilled to learn about how extended her family is.

But, she said, it was also painful, because it brought up something she called “generational PTSD.” She recalls going to Assumption Parish where her family was sold, and seeing the land where they were forced to work.

“When I go there, in the sugarcane fields, in my mind’s eye, I see my ancestors in those fields,” Royal said.

Research also shows that those who were sold from Georgetown were people who had already been enslaved on plantations run by the Jesuits, in Maryland, and who were often sold again to second and third families in Louisiana.

Ultimately, the sale meant that families who had lived together on the plantation in Maryland were ripped apart – including Royal’s husband’s family. In an opinion piece in Washington Post, Royal described the discovery in detail.

“Nace Butler, my husband’s ancestor, had a son named Nace Butler Jr., who was one of a handful of slaves who hid out in the woods and waited while the rest of the Georgetown 272 were led to the ship that would take them south to Louisiana,” Royal wrote. “His entire family was sold away, but he didn’t go.”

The conditions were also notoriously brutal in the Deep South, and small children and the elderly were forced to work in the fields.

Yet, on the other hand, the research means Royal now knows about an extended family, one she never knew she had connections to. She learned of a cousin, for example, named Leshawn Knolls, who lives out of town but whom she recently connected with while traveling.

“I describe as bittersweet,” Royal said of the whole process, in an interview with The Louisiana Weekly. “It kind of brings up pain and suffering your ancestors went through. But as a budding genealogist I am so excited about access to history about our families.”

Records show that the 272 slaves were sold for $115,000 – an amount that today would equal about $3.3 million, according to Royal.

Now, in honor of the slaves’ memory, Royal has announced that more than 500 descendants have already pulled together seed money for the scholarship, in the exact amount of $115,000.

“Our goal is to unshackle the hearts and minds of those who were never physically in bondage but who still live and work today under that terrible system’s vestiges,” Royal said. “This is the beginning of a huge conversation in this country, and we want to help our Georgetown family be a pivotal player in it.”

In a recent press release, Royal invited Georgetown to partner with the organization. She said as of mid-September she had not yet heard back about a definitive meeting time or place, but “remained hopeful” that one would come to fruition.

A spokeswoman for George-town, Stacy Kerr, said the university welcomes the invitation to meet with descendants, and pointed to DiGioia’s statements made at the Sept. 1 event.

“The opportunity to be able to find ways together to try to address some of the challenges…this is at the heart of what we were trying to be as a university,” DiGioia said. “I look forward together to try to find the most appropriate ways in which we can engage in that work.”

Other members of the group have said a working partnership would be integral to the success of Georgetown and the descendants. Among them is Cheryllyn Branch, a former principal of a Catholic school in New Orleans.

Branch, a self-described devout Catholic, said it was hard to learn that the church and the Jesuits and Georgetown played such an integral role in slavery in the late 1800s, but says she’s since found consolation in her faith. She also was uplifted by the students, she said, who “pushed the envelope” at the Catholic university to “look beyond themselves” for a greater cause.

As far as Georgetown, Branch said she, too, was cautiously optimistic that more would come from further attempts to reconcile history – as long as descendants were involved in the conversation.

“What they’re doing and what have done so far is a beginning. It is certainly not a finish,” Branch said. “But to assume that the institution Georgetown can speak to the descendants or for our ancestors is presumptuous.”

Joseph Stewart, another organizer of the GU272 Foundation, agreed.

“We viewed this as a prime opportunity for an institution that profited from slavery to join with the descendants of those enslaved to create a model for healing and redress in our nation,” Stewart said. “Yet we firmly believe in the old saying that, ‘Nothing about us, without us.’”

This article originally published in the September 19, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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